18 Creative, Green Gift Ideas—No Trip to the Mall Required

With a little creativity, you can give meaningful, personal gifts, save money, and avoid adding trash to the landfills.

November 30, 2010

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Here's something to consider as you check and recheck your holiday gift list: Many of us already have too much stuff. In fact, about 10 percent of U.S. households now choose to store their excess stuff (self-storage is a $20-billion business) rather than get rid of it. Yet all this stuff doesn't seem to be making us any happier. "There are theories that depression rates over the past 50 years have risen dramatically in the U.S. and other developed countries because people have more and do less," explains Rodale.com adviser Jeffrey Rossman, PhD, clinical psychologist and director of life management at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, MA. "We have more material possessions and engage in less physical activity than in any previous time in history.

As a counter-example, consider the Amish. "The trend is different in American subcultures in which abundant physical work and minimal reliance on technology continue to be part of the culture, such as among the Amish," he adds. "The rate of depression among their Amish neighbors is dramatically lower than among suburb- and city-dwelling Philadelphians."


We're not going to get all horse-and-buggy on you, but we will suggest creative, green gifts—many of them homemade items, experiences, or affordable tools—that will help you become more active, and are sure to lift the spirits of gift giver and receiver alike, without breaking the bank. Really, it all comes down to consuming less—which is lighter on the planet as well as your wallet.

The Gift of Organization

A 2008 Australian study found that 88 percent of households studied were cluttered, leaving residents feeling anxious and depressed. Pledge to help someone sort through his or her stuff and donate the unwanted items to a charity thrift shop, and you not only eliminate tripping hazards, you create a more peaceful environment for the gift recipient.

Here are some organizational gift ideas:

1. Give your dad a coupon promising you'll help him reorganize his garage or toolshed. You'll clear the clutter and spend some quality time together, and maybe hear a few yarns about where all that stuff came from. Start by moving big items to free up floor space, hanging items like bikes, hoses, and ladders on inexpensive screw-in utility hangers, for instance.

2. Give your clothing-hoarding friend or relative an invitation to help clear out a closet. For extra laughs, turn it into a mini fashion show and model outdated prom dresses and pantsuits. To start ditching unwanted clothes, first pick out items that are permanently stained, hopelessly ripped, or shrunk to elf size, and put them in a bag. Cut them up and store them (neatly) in the garage to use as rags, or ask a local machine or auto body shop if they could use them. Clothing that doesn't fit but that you can't get rid of can be folded and stored in labeled under-bed boxes or storage containers. Clothes that you don't like, that fit weirdly, that are out of style, or are uncomfortable should be sent to the Goodwill or a consignment shop (delivering them there—so the boxes don't sit cluttering up a corner somewhere—is part of your gift). For more ideas, check out the book Kick the Clutter: Clear Out Excess Stuff Without Losing What You Love (Rodale, 2008).

3. Not up for the task yourself? Tap into the National Association of Professional Organizers to hire a pro.

The Gift of Healthy Food

We're not talking prepackaged fruitcakes and room-temperature sausage and cheese in premade baskets. We're talking real food. You know, the stuff that's so good and satisfying, you won't have to overindulge to feel fulfilled.

4. Set someone up to plant a garden. Victory gardens are back with a vengeance, and even nongardeners are starting to join in on the fun. For someone interested in planting their own food, consider a tool from Rodale.com's 5 Cool Garden Tools list, and compliment it with a colorful heirloom-seed catalog from SeedSavers.org. The Rodale's Ultimate Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening: The Indispensable Green Resource for Every Gardener will also help ensure years of productive, organic gardens.

A garden doesn't just produce food, it can bring happiness, too. "There is a state of mind we get into called 'flow' when we are deeply absorbed in an activity; it happens when the activity is challenging and we feel we are doing it well. It's like the 'zone' that artists and athletes get into, except that anyone can experience it when they are deeply absorbed in an engaging activity," explains Rossman. "It could be folding laundry, gardening, or writing an article. People who have more flow experiences tend to be happier and more successful than those who have fewer."

5. Make it homemade. You can't lose when you show up with freshly baked pie. Try our easy homemade apple pie recipe, or if you're not up for baking, buy a pie dish at a thrift shop, add a recipe, and include some fresh (local and organic, if possible) apples and other ingredients. To really make an impression, stay away from cookies, since most families are inundated with them at this time of year. For ideas, see our Nickel Pincher's advice on thrifty food gifts, or consider canning some homemade pasta sauce. If someone on your list has special nutritional needs, the Rodale Recipe Finder can help you find a tasty treat he or she will appreciate.

6. Sign them up for a season of edibles. The ultimate food gift could be a subscription to a local community-supported agriculture, or CSA, program. Season fruit and vegetable CSAs are becoming very popular and can cost an average of $500 to $600 a share, but half-shares are available from some farms. More specialized fruit, meat, and dairy CSAs are also popping up in different communities. A CSA membership provides the recipient with weeks of healthy—often organic—food, and gives you peace of mind that you've invested money in a sustainable, local business. If the cost is outside your budget, consider purchasing a gift certificate to a local farmer's market. Check LocalHarvest.org to find farmers.

The Gift of a Stronger Body

Most people feel better after completing a chore or exercising than they do after watching TV. In fact, research shows many people feel mildly depressed after sitting passively in front of a television. If you know someone who's making a New Year's resolution to get in shape, you can help.

7. You can't go wrong with yoga. It lowers blood pressure, stress levels, and can help erase back pain better than meds. Whether you buy a gift certificate for classes at a local yoga studio or DVD, you'll be giving the gift of exercise, one of the most powerful sources of positive energy on Earth!
You could also pair it with an ecofriendly, nontoxic Jade Yoga Mat. For free beginner's poses, visit iyogalife.com.

8. Pay for a pro. Instead of buying someone expensive, clunky equipment that is likely to become a dust collector, buy him or her a few individual or group personal training sessions. Make sure your trainer is certified through a reputable source like the American Academy of Sports Medicine, the National Strength and Conditioning Association, or the National Academy of Sports Medicine, and, preferably, has a degree in kinesiology or exercise science. Rates vary, but expect to pay about $65 a session. If that's too steep, go in with some friends. Or consider paying for some group training sessions, with everyone chipping in but the gift recipient. You'll enjoy each other's company as well as a lower per-person cost for training.

9. Start a group. As a gift to yourself and your neighbors, set up a community walking program to improve overall health. Be the organizer, and aim for everyone to meet two to three times a week at first, walking in sessions as short as 10 minutes. As your waistlines melt away, your relationships will grow!

The Gift of Service

Research has shown that helping people is a surefire way to increase your own happiness. Volunteering has also been shown to help keep senior citizens' minds sharp. But no matter what your age, lending a helping hand in your community will hands down top any wrapped present.

The possibilities are really endless, but here are a few places to start:

10. Help build homes with Habitat for Humanity.

11. If you love animals, consider helping out at your local animal shelter. If you're looking to get in shape, you can volunteer to walk the dogs.

12. Whether you'd like to help out at a soup kitchen, organic farm, veterans' organization, volunteer water-quality-monitoring program, or local nursing home, there's likely a good fit for you in your community. You can also find listings on serve.gov.

The Gift of Experiences

13. Share the natural world. The gift of helping someone experience nature is free but could change that person's life. "Living out of sync with nature, our body, our spirit, and each other makes us particularly vulnerable to depression," says Rossman. "Genuine and lasting recovery requires realignment with what is natural and nourishing to our body and our spirit."

You don't have to book a trip to Yellowstone. Instead, take someone to a local park, or even spend a day with him or her outside in a backyard or in the neighborhood, walking, talking, and bird-watching. If you'd like, you could include affordable a binoculars and a field guide to birds. This is the perfect time to get someone interested in birding, by the way: Every year between mid-December and January, Audubon sponsors its annual Christmas Bird Count, which is a great experience to share with someone while you collect valuable research data for scientists.

14. Broaden someone's horizons. You can schedule a global dinner party in the comfort of your own home for a fun family night that can broaden a child's cultural experience, according to Homa Tavangar, author of Growing Up Global: Raising Children to Be At Home in the World (Ballantine, 2009). Let your child pick a country, and then cook an authentic dinner from that region, allowing your child to help. Learn greetings and common phrases from the country, and top the night off with an age-appropriate movie from that land. For ideas, check out our 5 Stay-at-Home Ways to Give Your Kid a Global Advantage story.

15. Want an experience that doesn't cost a thing? When the weather's warm enough, schedule a backyard campout. If you don't have the gear, ask friends and family, and you'll likely be able to borrow what you need. Just don't forget the marshmallows! For a complete guide on how to do this, check out our Great American Backyard Campout .

Here are a few more creative, green gift ideas to consider:

16. Eco-Romance

17. Homemade Hats, Scarves, Bags, and Throw Pillows (out of old wool sweaters!)

18. Citizen Science Projects

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